Artù could hardly contain his excitement. The mixed-breed dog was searching for something worth 500 euros per kilo: Tuscan truffles. Along with Artù’s owner Matteo, social media manager Dirk and I went out on a blustery January day to search for truffles on the Castelfalfi Estate in Tuscany. Up until that day, we had thought truffles were hunted with pigs. This was true earlier in history, but now truffle hunting with pigs is prohibited in Italy because they devastate the forest floor, plus they try to eat the truffles they find. Of course, this isn’t ideal with the price per kilo. The industrial cultivation of truffles has not been too successful, so truffle dog Artù and “tartufaio” (truffle hunter), Matteo, won’t be unemployed anytime soon. Castelfalfi visitors can watch the team at work and we didn’t want to miss that.
Artù, the super smeller
Truffles form a symbiosis with the roots of deciduous trees, growing just below the forest floor. An icy wind blew across the lightly wooded area and we were left wondering how the truffle dog could sniff anything under such conditions. Artù’s sensitive nose scanned the ground; as soon as he detected a truffle, he started digging like mad, wagging his tail in a circle like a helicopter about to take off. Matteo sprinted over, praised Artù, and rewarded him with a treat. The two of them had a special bond. He carefully loosened the earth with a small shovel, and where we could only see dirt, his trained eye recognised a small truffle. In his camouflage clothing and dark hood, the truffle hunter looked menacing, but as he showed us the truffle, he beamed like a little boy.
Smaller than a walnut, the gourmet treasure was quite inconspicuous. It was hard to believe that this unappetising-looking thing was an expensive, delicious truffle! We smelled it and immediately recognised the typical, intense truffle-mushroom aroma. It was still not the right season for proper aromatic truffles. Matteo told us that the Bianchetto truffle grows under the earth from January to May. This one was not as big as the black truffle (“nero estivo”), which matures in summer and can grow as big as your palm. Our January truffles still hadn’t matured properly and Matteo left many of them buried “so they can rot and thus feed the next truffles.”
Walking truffle encyclopedia, the tartufaio
How’d he know all that? Not everyone can call themselves a tartufaio and just go looking for truffles. A real tartufaio must take a course, pass an exam, and purchase a license for a specific search area in a municipality. Wild searching for the expensive truffles is illegal. Without regulations, all the truffles would be gone in a single season. A good tartufaio allows time for truffles to grow and is sensitive to the ecological balance.
A good tartufaio also recognises which dog has a good nose. At just a few weeks old, dogs are exposed to the typical truffle scent and it quickly becomes clear which ones have the makings of a truffle professional. It doesn’t even have to be a certain breed of dog, but it is important that the dog always sees truffle hunting as a game and has fun doing it. Artù got all jittery and couldn’t wait, so Matteo gave him a signal and he scanned the ground again, looking for more.
Truffle butter, truffle oil, truffles everywhere
Truffle hunters and gourmets come together in the autumn: the intensely aromatic “Biancho pregiato”, commonly know as the white truffle, grows in September. The price per kilo is a proud 1,500 to 5,000 euros. The tartufaio – unlike the tourists – rejoices in a hot and rainy summer, because this is the climate truffles love. Matteo’s old farmer wisdom: “If it’s a good year for truffles, it’s a bad year for wine, and vice versa.” Vintners and truffle hunters can’t be friends.
Meanwhile, the hardworking truffle dog and the truffle master had found a few chunks of winter truffles. What does Matteo do now? His family-owned company manufactures all sorts of delicious products: preserved truffles, truffle butter, truffle oil, truffle salt, truffle honey… sounds like a strange combination at first, but it’s tasty! We tested it ourselves. Matteo eats truffles, but prefers them freshly grated over food. If you’re hungry, you can enjoy the truffles in the restaurants of the Resort Castelfalfi that came from the estate itself. But before that, you should participate in a truffle hunt so you feel like you’ve earned the noble meal.